About Me

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Having reviewed over 1200 books on this blog, I have now written two myself. Motherdarling is a story about a search for a missing Will which reveals long-hidden family secrets. The Kids of God is a thriller set in a dystopia ruled by fascist paramilitaries. Both are available as paperbacks and on Kindle through Amazon. I live in Canterbury, England. I lived for more than thirty years in Bedford. Having retired from teaching; I became a research student at the University of Bedfordshire researching into Liminality. I achieved my PhD in 2019. I am now properly retired. I love reading! I enjoy in particular fiction (mostly great and classic fiction although I also enjoy whodunnits), biography, history and smart thinking. Follow me on twitter: @daja57

Monday, 31 October 2016

"Cymbeline" by William Shakespeare

This is a play full of mythical motifs: a wicked step-mother, princes stolen as babies. It is mixed with the story of the bet to test a lady's honour. Shakespeare works hard to set up a few dramatic scenes: the evil Iachimo creeping out of the chest in Innogen's bedroom; Posthumus becoming convinced that his wife is adulterous, Innogen discovering a headless corpse dressed in her husband's clothes. Cloten makes a wonderful clown-villain who will fight a duel with anyone at a moment's notice, he is rude and coarse and so stupid that he never seems to realise that the dialogue around him, including what he himself says, can be reinterpreted to suggest that he is stupid. I love Cloten. But the final scene in which everything is reconciled is just a little too contrived.

The version I saw performed by the RSC at the Barbican Theatre in the City of London November 5th 2016 (matinee performance) changed Cymbeline into a Queen and the wicked step-mother into a suitably growling wicked step-father; Pisanio became Pisania, Cornelius Cornelia and one of Cymbeline's sons became a daughter all of which worked well. Posthumus was played by an actor of Sri Lankan descent (Hiran Abeysekara, who appeared as Puck in the BBC TV production of Midsummer Night's dream) and Cloten by Marcus Griffiths, of West Indian descent which worked well enough for Innogen's confusion over the headless body to be believable.

Act One starts with a dreadfully clunky bit where First Gentleman explains to a remarkably ignorant Second gentleman ("What was his name and status?" etc) the back story. Cymbeline, King of Britain though paying tribute to the Roman Emperor, had two sons who were stolen as babies and a daughter, Innogen, now grown up, who has just defied him by marrying penniless courtier Posthumus instead of step-brother Cloten. Posthumus is banished to Rome.

Innogen's wicked step-mother who asks her doctor to procure for her poison (but he supplies only a potion which will make the drinker appear to die).

In the RSC production the Italian scene started with a tacky party with the characters speaking Italian and translations projected as subtitles onto the scenery. There is a definite auro of young man bullishness around. Posthumus boasts of Innogen's virtue. Iachimo thinks all women fickle ("strange fowl light upon neighbouring ponds") and wagers Posthumus that he can travel to Britain and bring back "sufficient testimony that I have enjoyed the dearest bodily part of your mistress." 

Iachimo travels to Britain and is entertained by Innogen. He tells her that Posthumus is spending her money on prostitutes and then offers himself as her revenge; she scorns the suggestion. But she does agree to look after his chest for him.

Act Two has some of the best bits of the play. In a wonderfully melodramatic scene, Innogen goes to sleep and Iachimo climbs out of the trunk. He notes the details of her bedroom, steals a bracelet and spots a mole on her breast. This is a moment of perfect theatre.

In a brilliant double entendre whose rude meaning possibly only Cloten does not see, Cloten hires musicians to woo Innogen, suggesting they can "penetrate her with your fingering". The RSC put on Cloten and his companion lords as a boy band. But she spurns him and tells him that he is worse than the "meanest garment" of Posthumus which really winds him up.  This insult really gets under Cloten's skin; he keeps asking "his garment?"; "his garment?"; "His meanest garment?"; "His meanest garment? Well!" This was really well done in the RSC version; the audience really saw the bragging Cloten brought low by this single comment of Innogen's. Of course, it is of immense significance to the plot. In the middle of this Innogen suddenly realises she had lost her bracelet

"...I do think

I saw't this morning: confident I am.

Last night 'twas on mine arm; I kissed it."
This again was played in a beautiful manner, by a slightly distracted Innogen as an aside in the middle of insulting Cloten.
In Scene 4 Iachimo convinces Posthumus that he has seduced Innogen unleashing wonderful, wonderful poetry from the devastated Posthumus:

"Let there be no honour
Where there is beauty: truth, where semblance: love,

Where there's another man. The vows of women

Of no more bondage be to where they are made

Than they are to their virtues, which is nothing.

O, above measure false!"
"...I thought her

As chaste as unsunned snow ..."

"... for there's no motion

That tends to vice in man, but I affirm

It is the woman's part: be it lying, note it,

The woman's: flattering, hers: deceiving, hers:

Lust and rank thoughts, hers, hers: revenges, hers:

Ambitions, covetings, change pf prides, disdain,
Nice longing, slanders, mutability,
All faults that may be named, nay, that hell knows, 
Why, hers, in part or all: but rather all,
For even to vice
They are not constant ..."

Act Three
In Scene 1: Egged on by the evil Queen, King Cymbeline declares war on Rome because "Britain's/ A world by itself, and we will nothing pay/ For wearing our own noses." (Brexit?)
In the middle of the play we finally discover the two baby princes, now grown men living in the mountains but growing tired of the rural life, longing for a new untasted excitement:
"we poor unfledged
Have never winged from view o' th' nest, nor know not

What air's from home. Haply this life is best,

If quiet life be blest; sweeter to you

That have a sharper known, well corresponding

With your stiff age; but unto us it is
A cell of ignorance, travelling abed,
A prison for a debtor that not dares
To stride a limit."

Meanwhile Innogen flees from the court and, discovering that Posthumus thinks her adulterous

"False to his bed? What is it to be false?

To lie in watch there, and to think on him?

To weep 'twixt clock and clock? If sleep charge

To break it with a fearful dream of him, 
And cry myself awake? That's false to's bed, is it?"
 is persuaded to disguise herself as a boy and seek service with the Roman army come to invade Britain (this seems a little improbable; the allegiances in this play do seem somewhat confused). But she stumbles into the cave of the lost princes.

Act Four
When the court discover Innogen gone, Cloten, still smarting from Innogen's insult, dresses in the clothes of Posthumus and rides out after what he thinks will be the eloping couple. However, the lost princes kill Cloten and behead him. Meanwhile Innogen has drunk the potion supplied by her step-daughter and appears to be dead. So the lost princes dump Innogen with the headless corpse in some sort of open tomb and chant:
"Fear no more the heat o' th' sun,
Nor the furious winter's rages,

Thou thy wordly task has done,

Home art gone, and ta'en thy wages.

Golden lads and girls all must,

As chimney-sweepers, come to dust."
Of course, when Innogen awakes she assumes from the clothes that the corpse is that of Posthumus. Fortunately the Romans bobble along and Innogen (still disguised as a boy) takes service with the Prince. Not that grief-struck then.

Act Five
Remorseful Posthumus has come to Britain with the Italians but decides to disguise himself as a British peasant and fight on the side of the Brits. Iachimo, fighting for the Romans, repents of his badness. Thanks to the lost princes and Posthumus, the Brits win the war and there is a long scene in which all those who were disguised are revealed and everything is happy ever after (except for the wicked step-mother who has died off-stage and her evil son Cloten.

November 2016

Arthur Quiller-Couch, in Shakespeare's Workmanship, suggests that some critics (he cites Dr Johnson) consider Cymbeline to be inferior to Shakespeare's greatest works. Johnson complained about the bits where the action seems absurd and confused and even, at times, impossible. Against this QC retorts that impossibility of fact is  commonplace in fiction, especially in fairy-tales and allegories, which Cymbeline resembles. QC acknowledges that Iachimo is inferior to Iago and that the character Cymbeline is inferior to the character Lear but he suggests that being inferior to two such great plays is hardly a damning indictment. He suggest that Shakespeare was endeavouring to produce what he had not managed to produce in the great tragedies and that is a picture of a women wronged but who forgives (unlike Ophelia or Cordelia) and that the character of Imogen is a triumph. And, in addition, he points out that for all the absurdities in the plot the final scene of 485 lines contains no fewer than 24 dénouements.

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Wednesday, 26 October 2016

"Les Enfants terribles" by Jean Cocteau

Paul, a schoolboy, hero worships Dargelos the school bad boy who throws a stone-filled snowball at him and makes him ill. Gerard, who hero worships Paul, takes him home to the flat where Paul's sister Elisabeth tends their dying mother.

And in this world of orphans and illness, maintained by servants paid for by benefactors (initially the doctor and Gerard's Uncle) Paul and Elisabeth play The Game, a game of sibling rivalry mingled with unconsummated incestuous desires, a game into which they draw Gerard and later Angela, an orphan who is the spitting image of Dargelos. They mature physically and adult sexuality begin to distort the rules of the Game, but they never grow up mentally and the Play still explodes with childish tantrums.

Inevitably this must lead to tragedy.

This is a book about power and the way in which it warps human behaviour. The enclosed world in which the Game operates reminded me of the arcane world of Ritual in Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast trilogy. It was interesting, too, how Cocteau explored child sexuality from schoolboy crush to adolescent passion.

The prose reminds me a little of William Burroughs (although Cocteau's narrative is far more linear than those in, eg The Naked Lunch, The Soft Machine or The Wild Boys.  Cocteau is not afraid to write poetic images into prose and there are moments of lyrical beauty although these moments always threaten to purple and overblow. Judge for yourself:

  • "Lord of space and time, dweller in the twilit fringes between light and darkness, fisher in the confluent pools of truth and fantasy," (p 15)
  • "the atmosphere of perpetually impending storm which was the breath of life to both of them." (p 35)
  • "this puppet in the place of a live person." (p 38)
  • "Beyond the boundaries of the ordinary world of lives and houses, unguessed, undreamed of in their common-sense philosophy, lies the vast realm of the improbably: a world too disordered, so it would seem, to hold together for a fortnight, let alone for several years. And yet these lives, these houses continue to maintain a precarious equilibrium in defiance of all laws of man and nature. All the same, persons who base their calculations on the inexorable pressure of the force of circumstance assume, correctly, that such lives are doomed. The world owes its enchantment to these curious creatures and their fancies; but its multiple complicity rejects them. Thistledown spirits, tragic, heartrending in their evanescence, they must go blowing headlong to perdition. And yet, all started harmlessly, in childish games and laughter ..." (p 61)

In many ways this is a surrealist version of the world I am constructing for my forthcoming thriller The Garage.

An very short but extraordinarily complex and surrealist novel. I need to think about it hard! October 2016; 135 pages

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

"Seven Types of Ambiguity" by William Empson

This is the classic book. But why?

Not for the classification of 'ambiguity' into seven subtypes which is possibly arbitrary. I found it very difficult to distinguish between the different types and wondered why Empson had bothered.

But it is a classic for the deep empathy that Empson shows with at least some types of poetry. For example, he claims with authority that Shakespeare more or less invented the second type of ambiguity by using the device of taking two nouns and throwing them together as in 'the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune'. But, you may holler, slings and arrows are more or less the same thing. Shakey is just doubling the image (either slings or arrows would have done) for intensification. OK, but sometimes Shakey goes a bit further: 'As when, by night and negligence, the fire/ Is spied in populous cities': night and negligence are not the same and neither enable spying!

So for this reason I enjoyed the book. The classification still seems arbitrary and potentially spurious to me. But there were other gems:
  • Richard Paget Human Sound theory: "while 'huge' moves the tongue back from the teeth so as to make as large a space as it can, 'wee' moves the tongue near to the teeth so as to leave as small as space as it can". (p 14)
  • "A dramatic situation is always heightened by breaking off the dialogue to look out of the window, especially is some kind of Pathetic Fallacy is to be observed outside." (p 19)
  • "the ornamental use of false antithesis, which places words as if in opposition to one another without saying in virtue of what they are to be opposed." (p 22)
  • "the process of understanding one's friends must always be riddled with such indecisions and the machinery of such hypocrisy; people, often, cannot have done both of two things, but they must have been prepared in some way to have done either; whichever they did, they will still have lingering in their minds th way they would have preserved their self-respect if they had acted differently; they are only to be understood by bearing both possibilities in mind." (p 44)
  • "In many languages new forms for expressing the negative have been introduced, because the olfd form being unstressed becomes progressively harder to hear. Hence the French pas etc and the English do with the negative." (p 206 footnote)
An interesting read which needs updating. October 2016; 256 pages

Monday, 24 October 2016

"Medea" by Euripides

Medea is a classic play by the Greek dramatist Euripides who flourished at the same time as Sophocles (who wrote Antigone) and Aeschylus during the golden age of Greek drama.

Medea has an enormously challenging story line with a great deal of back story. When Jason led his Argonauts into the Black Sea to find the Golden Fleece he went to Colchis (in modern Georgia) where King Aeetes ruled; the King offered him the fleece providing he could perform certain tasks; Medea the King's daughter fell in love with him and used her magical powers to help him succeed. When Jason fled Colchis with the fleece Medea went with him, killing her brother and dismembering him and throwing the bits of body into the sea so that the pursuing king would stop to pick them up and Jason could escape.


Then, when they stopped at Mount Pelion, she persuaded the daughters of pelias to chop their father up by telling them that this was the way to make him better of his illness.


With Jason she had children. But he, being a typical man, decided when they went to Corinth, that he should marry the King's daughter (he had a predilection for princesses) Glauce.

That's all back story!

The story starts as King Creon, father to Glauce, comes to Medea to tell her she must go into exile because he is afraid that she will use her witchcraft to seek revenge on himself, Jason and Glauce. But she begs for a single day to organise herself which he, reluctantly and against his better judgement, grants.

The King of Athens passes by and Medea persuades him to give her unconditional asylum in Athens.

Jason arrives. He is a little shame-faced but defiant: "It is fair enough that one of your sex, a woman, should fly into a passion with a husband who traffics in contraband love." Then he tells her to "grow up". Medea's problem, in Jason's eyes, is that she can't have sex with him any more. "when your sex life is going well, you think that you have everything, but then, if something goes wrong with regard to your bed, you consider the best and happiest circumstances utterly repugnant." He's moved on, why can't she?

She sends her children with gifts to his new wife, Glauce; the gifts are booby trapped and Glauce dies, as does Creon, trying to save her. The Messenger who conveys the news reflects that "man's life is merely a shadow". Jason rushes to Medea's house, cursing her as an "artist in obscenity" but she appears in the sky in a chariot drawn by dragons with the bodies of his sons, the gift-bearers, whom she herself has killed rather than letting them fall into the hands of the authorities.

It is difficult to see how this play, much of it chanted, with a chorus of Corinthian women who, early in the play, promise Medea that they won't interfere, could possibly appeal to a modern audience. The motivations of the characters are too obscure. Nevertheless, the play has survived for two and a half millennia and it is still performed.

October 2016; 38 pages

Sunday, 23 October 2016

"The Mating Season" by P G Wodehouse

Bertie Wooster has to pretend to be Gussie Fink-Nottle and Gussie has to pretend to be Bertie to resolve the broken engagements of:

  • Hollywood film starlet and Bertie's childhood friend Corky and Esmond Haddock, a man who cannot stand up to his five disapproving aunts;
  • Corky's brother Catsmeat who loves Esmond's niece Gertrude;
  • Gussie's betrothed Madeleine Bassett who, if Gussie chucks her in favour of his grwoing infatuation with Corky who is playing hard to get with Esmond, will turn her attention to Bertie whom, she thinks, loves her;
  • Village policeman PC Dodds, sworn enemy to Corky since he had locked up her dog,  and parlourmaid Queenie who is daughter to Jeeves' uncle Silversmith.

Naturally, the paths of true love are beautifully entangled.

A classic Jeeves and Wooster farce written in Wodehouse's perfect prose including the lines:

  • "dragons are one thing, and aunts are another"
  • "it was plain at a glance that the passage of time had done nothing to gruntle him"
  • "I wouldn't have believed ... that anybody ... could be such an authority on the film world as is Mrs Clara Wellbeloved. She knows much more about it than I do, and I'll have been moving in celluloid circles [love that image!] two years come Lammas Eve [love the archaism]. She knows exactly how many times everybody's been divorced and why, how much every picture for the last twenty years has grossed, and how many Warner brothers there are. She even knows how many times Artie Shaw has been married, which I'll bet he couldn't tell you himself. She asked if I had ever married Artie Shaw, and when I said No, seemed to think I was pulling her leg or must have done it without noticing. I tried to explain that when a girl goes to Hollywood she doesn't have to marry Artie Shaw, it's optional, but I don't think I convinced her."
  • "in vino what's-the-word"
  • "I told her more. In fact I told her all. When I had finished, she laughed like a hyena and also, for girls never make sense, let fall a pearly tear or two."
  • "I don't know anything more sickening than being baffled by an unforeseen stymie at the eleventh hour"
  • "I made for it like a man on a walking tour diving into a village pub two minutes before closing time."

"A tall, drooping man, looking as if he had been stuffed in a hurry by an incompetent taxidermist."

Beautiful stuff by the man who also wrote the equally brilliant Aunts Aren't Gentlemen.

October 2016; 272 pages

Monday, 10 October 2016

"Death, desire and loss in Western culture" by Jonathan Dollimore

Dollimore's thesis is that, in western culture (and beyond?) eroticism is fundamentally bound up with the death wish. His starting point is a novel about a gay man who enjoys unsafe sex, contracts HIV, and then deliberately spreads it. Homosexuality, says Dollimore "is seen as death-driven, death-desiring and thereby death-dealing." (p xi). But this is not a modern phenomenon; for Dollimore it is intrinsic to western culture.

Western culture has always thrived on dualities and one of the most significant is that between "the world of appearances, the domain of unreality, deception, loss, transience and death" and "an ultimate, changeless reality ... said to be the source of the absolute, as distinct from relative, truth, and even of eternal life." (p xiii) eg the world of the Platonic ideal. Dollimore points out that Socrates committed suicide; later on he contracts the artistic Platonic love which the protagonist of Death and Venice believes in to the catastrophe when he falls in love with the smile of a boy.

He makes the point that carpe diem is over-optimistic since "time and change, driving us towards a horizon of oblivion, make it hard to seize anything, let alone the day." [My favourite version of carpe diem appeared as the name of a bar in Sorrento; presumably they believed that alcoholic stupor improves productivity.]

Greek love
"Male sexuality is especially and inherently insecure, always haunted by the prospect of failure and humiliation ('a flop is a flop'), and even when apparently successful it is inherently mutable, going from erection through orgasm to detumescence" (p xxv)

"The Greeks revered youthful beauty" (p 16) and mourned its passing even more than they mourned death: "To die young in battle weas not only to be immortalized as a hero, it was also to escape the decline and decay of old age." (pp 17 - 17)

"The Sirens are said to sing from within a flowering meadow [a Greek word also used for female genitalia]" (p 18) and seduce sailors with the "mortal (sexual?) desire for immortality. But these mouldering remains tell us that this overwhelming desire leads not to an exalted, immortalizing death ... but precisely to a death of the kind which the Greeks feared most: without funeral. without tomb, and rotting anonymously on the shore, indistinguishable from the other corpses in the pile." (p 19)

"For Lucretius ... sexual desire in the male is compared to dying, or at least injury, and warfare ... blood spurts out towards the source of the blow, and the enemy who delivered it, if he is fighting at close quarters, is bespattered by the crimson stream" (p 22)

The Bible is an early source of the idea that "death and loss simultaneously drive and frustrate desire" (p xix) since Adam and Eve's discovery of sex led directly to the loss of Eden and their condemnation to death. Ecclesiastes (which derives from "the so-called wisdom movement of the Near East; p 39) goes on about vanity which comes from the Hebrew word for "vapour - that which is unsubstantial, momentary and profitless, fleeting as a breath, and amounting to nothing." (p 36) Human life is like a shadow.  "It is as if an inscrutable God has deliberately created a universe devoid of himself; one in which there is no discernible moral law, and where eternity is ultimately the darkness of death and, more immediately, the permanent, restless yet monotonous movement of inanimate nature, whose immense scale only emphasises the brevity and insubstantiality of human life" (p 39)

Dollimore asks whether Romeo had a death wish; certainly in Romeo and Juliet "an adult fantasy about adolescent desire ... adolescent sexuality contains a powerful erotic charge for the adult, regardless of sexual orientation" (p 109)the star-crossed lovers mingle sex with death. And Shakespeare makes Hamlet suggest that death is a "'consummation' ... the word is precisely significant, meaning both satisfying climax and being consumed or vanished into nothing" (p xxi). And in Measure for Measure Claudio is condemned to death for promiscuity.

More recently, Bataille said that "Eroticism is inseparable from repugnance ... this is not simply danger ... excessive horror paralyses desire ... What most repulses us is putrefaction" (p 253); "It is the fragrance of death which gives sexuality all its power." (p 254)

His analysis of the homoerotic Death in Venice is excellent: Thomas Mann the author had in later years become more and more aware of his attraction to male beauty, including his own son in swimming trunks. Aschenbach is Mann, trying to rationalize his passion in terms "by comparing the latter's physical beauty with his own art. Nature, like the artist, works with discipline and precision to create perfect form, and the boy's beauty is the physical counterpart of the spiritual beauty which is the artist's province. In pursuit of this idea, Aschenbach invokes its Platonic origins." (p 281) But the plague raging in Venice "works as a metaphor for the resurgence of the primeval in and through the decadent, and homosexual desire is its trigger." (p 290) And "Decadence was always there; Tadzio radiates a beauty which is said to be noble, and austere, yet almost immediately he is observed to have unhealthy teeth. ... Aschenbach reflects that the boy will not live to grow old ... the decadent and perhaps vengeful pleasure of realizing that the object of his desire will succumb to an inherent degeneracy." (p 289)

Not just sex and death
Dollimore is good about things other than just (?) death and sex. He tells us that "Thomas Browne speaks of the importance of knowing oneself but also of the difficulty of doing so." (p 84); that "Augustine [in the Confessions] suggests how individualism was from the beginning energized by an inner dynamic of loss, conflict, doubt, absence and lack, and how this feeds into our culture's obsession with control and expansion - the sense that the identity of everything, from self to nation, is under centrifugal and potentially disintegrative pressures which have to be rigorously controlled. This is a kind of control that is always exceeding and breaking down the very order it restlessly quests for, and is forever establishing its own rationale even as it undermines it."; and that "David Hume reconceptualized the self as completely mutable and entirely the prisoner of time. Even the meditation upon the self is pointless, according to Hume, since the kid of self which meditation presupposed is non-existent. ... during introspection one's attention is always caught up in the transient, fleeting impressions of consciousness itself. ... we are 'nothing but a bundle or collection of different perceptions, which succeed each other with an inconceivable rapidity, and are in a perpetual flux and movement' ... There is absolutely nothing within us that remains unalterably the same through flux and change - certainly not a soul, and not even an unchanging self. Nor does the mind have an unchanging nature or essence; it too is essentially discontinuous. We are nothing more than the movement and flux of consciousness." (p 93) [This made me think of Andy Clark's, Surfing Uncertainty]

Baudrillard sees "culture as a macro-conspiracy conducted by an insidious ideological prime-mover whose agency is always invisibly at work (rather like God)." (p 124)
"It is a function of myth ... to provide a disguised or obscure expression of what can no longer be said openly. Typically, the expression will conform to socially acceptable conventions - here, in the romance, chivalry is the convention - in order to explore an antisocial content." (p 65)
The lumpenproletariat are "not a class so much as a motley, uprooted and, in many instances, itinerant mass of people"; Marx included among them "decayed roues, vagabonds, discharged soldiers and jailbirds, escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, beggars ... 'scum, offal, refuse of all classes'" (pp 215 - 216)

A fascinating and beautifully written book. October 2016; 327 pages

Sunday, 9 October 2016

"King Lear" by William Shakespeare

I saw a stupendous performance of King Lear by the Royal Shakespeare Company in the Barbican Theatre on 26th November 2016 with Anthony Sher as the King and a magnificent performance by David Troughton as Gloucester. I also saw Lear on BBC2 on 28th May 2018 in a superb TV adaptation with the wonderful Anthony Hopkins as Lear, Emma Thompson and Emily Watson stunning as Goneril and Regan, Jim Carter stupendous as the Earl of Kent, Jim Broadbent brilliant as Gloucester, great performances by Fool (Karl Johnson) and Oswald (Christopher Eccleston) and a spell-binding performance as Edmund by John Macmillan.

King Lear is the classic Shakespeare play about a King, retiring, who gives his kingdom to his daughters after asking them to tell him how much they love him. The older two flatter him and please him, the younger cannot and, in a rage, he cuts her off without anything. But then he discovers that the older two won't look after him now they have his power. He runs off into the teeth of a storm on a heath, accompanied by his Fool, and the Duke of Kent (whom he earlier banished but has returned disguised to serve him). In the storm, Lear goes mad.

This is the only tragedy with a full sub-plot. Edmund is the bastard son of the Earl of Gloucester and fools his father into disinheriting his half-brother, legitimate Edgar, and then betrays his father to Lear's harpy-like daughters who blind Gloucester. The sisters then fall out over which one of them should take Edmund to their bed.

The madness of Lear is a remarkable piece of Shakespearean theatre when, for perhaps the only time, Shakespeare leaves the formality of verse-drama far behind. Act 3, Scene 6, almost at the dead centre of the play, contains a remarkable three-hander in which Lear is going mad, Edgar pretends madness, and the Fool is making fun. 

Nothingness is a motif. In the first scene, when Cordelia the youngest daughter is told to tell Lear how much she loves him, because she lacks "that glib and oily art? To speak and purpose not", she says: "Nothing, my Lord." Lear replies "Nothing?" and she repeats "Nothing." He then states "Nothing will come of nothing". And, in the end, this is what happens. When Edgar is pretending to read a forged letter from his brother he tells his father that it is "Nothing, my lord" and Gloucester says "The quality of nothing hath not such need to hide itself." When Kent derides a poem by the fool as  "This is nothing, fool", the Fool asks Lear "Can you make no use of nothing, nuncle?"; Lear replies "nothing can be made out of nothing"; later the fool will tell Lear that Lear himself is "Lear's shadow." A Gentleman tells Kent that he has scene Lear upon the heath:  the wind "tears his white hair/ Which the impetuous blasts, with eyeless rage,/ Catch in their fury, and make nothing of". And when Lear meets Gloucester, who has had his eyes plucked out, he says sadly: "This great world/ Shall so wear out to nought"

Edmund's anger at being a bastard. He thinks that love-children, because they are born in passion, must be better than children born from dutiful marital sex: 
"Why brand they us
With base? with baseness? bastardy? base, base? 
Who in the lusty stealth of nature take? 
More composition and fierce quality
Than doth, within a dull, stale, tired bed, 
Go to th'creating a whole tribe of fops,
Got 'tween asleep and wake?"

Later, he is in the position of having to decide which queen to marry:
"To both these sisters have I sworn my love;
Each jealous of the other, as the stung
Are of the adder. Which of them shall I take?
Both? one? or neither? Neither can be enjoy'd
If both remain alive
But at the end, defeated and dying, he can still reflect that he was loved by two queens:
"Yet Edmund was belov'd: 
The one the other poison'd for my sake,
And after slew herself."

Edgar, fleeing the battle with his father, helps him rest beneath a tree. They need to go further off to be safe but Gloucester just wants to stay there and die. Edgar refuses: "Men must endure/ Their going hence, even as their coming hither:/ Ripeness is all."

And in the final scene, Lear enters bearing the body of Cordelia. But is she dead? He can't decide:
"Howl, howl, howl! O, you are men of stones!
Had I your tongues and eyes, I'd use them so
That heaven's vault should crack. She's gone for ever.
I know when one is dead, and when one lives;
She's dead as earth. Lend me a looking glass;
If that her breath will mist or stain the stone,
Why then she lives.

There is a great explanation of this play in James Shapiro's 1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear.

Other Shakespeare plays reviewed in this blog include (productions mentioned in parentheses; RSC = Royal Shakespeare Company; NT = National Theatre):

Monday, 3 October 2016

"A Year in the Allotment" by Anne Brooks

I have just (two days ago!) acquired an allotment and, being a complete novice when it comes to growing things, thought that this book, subtitled "A Beginner's Guide to Losing the Plot" would teach me everything I needed to know. I was disappointed.

Despite her protestations she is no beginner. Her husband, saint Keith, has gardened for years and she clearly knows her flowers (and she sneaks in the confession that she is a farmer's daughter).

The book is written in the form of a blog (and the blog is a form much more suitable to the way it is written). There are lots of photographs which are reproduced in black and white; it is often difficult to make out what they show, especially since none of them are captioned and sometimes they don't appear to be related to the text. Being a blog, it is more about the way Brooke feels than providing any significant advice. And she is relentlessly optimistic. After an hour of starting to clear my allotment I walked around like an old man, my back suffering for a whole day. Brooke's narrative is peppered with lashings of "hurrah" and "double hurrah" and "goodness me" and even a "yikes" which I thought only belonged with Billy Bunter.

"Thank goodness Nature knows what she's doing, as really we're just winging it ..."

I think this book should have stayed as a blog and I was interested to note that there are indeed significant differences between the forms.

October 2016; quite a few pages but they're not numbered and many of them are given over to the photographs.

Saturday, 1 October 2016

"The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro

Axl and Beatrice, two Britons living in a rural village in a land full of mist, an old couple full of forgetfulness, decide to travel to their son's village; they can't quite remember but something may have happened which is why he left but they are sure that he will welcome them and they can go and live with him.

Beatrice has a pain in her side so they decide to go to a nearby Saxon village first to find a woman who is skilled in healing.

On the way they meet a strange boatman who tells them that he ferries people to an island where, usually, the people are quite alone. But sometimes, the boatman says, he ferries a couple across and, if they answer certain questions correctly, when they get to the island they will be company one for the other.

In the Saxon village they meet a Saxon warrior, Wistan, who is on a mission to kill a dragon, Querig, who makes the mist that is the source of all forgetting and a boy, Edwin, who has been injured after having been abducted by ogres. And then they meet Sir Gawain. We are firmly within the realm of myth and legend but what part did Axl play in all of this when he was young?

This is a book written with haunting lyrical beauty, mostly seen from the point of view of Axl although there are two episodes narrated by Sir Gawain, Edwin is given a section to narrate, and the final chapter is narrated by the boatman. Beatrice is a wonderful character, full of compassion and concern; her main goal is to have Axl with her after she is dead. None of the other characters match her in reality.

I found the penultimate section rather difficult. There seemed a lot of philosophy being discussed all of a sudden. The author's message seemed close to being an intruder.

Ishiguro also wrote When We Were Orphans, reviewed in this blog, and the brilliant Never Let Me Go, as well as The Remains of the Day and A Pale View of Hills and a number of other remarkable books. In fact he is a modern writing genius!

There is a standard story called the Hero's Quest. Classically it is a three act structure but since act 2 is separated into 2a and 2b, I like to think of it as four acts:

  • Act 1 'Separation' is set in the 'normal' world when an 'inciting incident' calls the hero to adventure. At first the hero refuses the call but then he (or she) meets a mentor and crosses the threshold into the Other world.
  • In Act 2 'Descent' the hero is tested and meets allies and enemies
  • The Ordeal, involving death and rebirth (usually symbolic or psychological), is at the very centre of the book.
  • Act 3 'Initiation' begins the long process of the road back. At some point the hero 'seizes the sword'. We are still in the Other world but at the end of Act 3 the hero crosses the threshold back into the normal world.
  • Act 4 'Return' involves some sort of resurrection experience as the climax of the book; finally the hero returns to reality with the magic potion, a better and wiser person.

Ishiguro's book sets out to conform to this paradigm: it starts off in a quasi-normal world, although already there are strange magical elements hovering around the fringes of normality. It flouts the convention because, at the end, they do not return to a normal world. Both Axl and Beatrice have to make the decision to travel to see their son, and they both act as curbs on one another. For Beatrice there is a strange meeting with a red-haired stranger, and the fact that she is nurturing some illness inside her body. Perhaps for Axl the decision is made when his wife is in trouble for having a candle. The community has decreed that they are too old to have a candle in the bedroom in case they spill it and set the place on fire but Beatrice says that this is "nothing but unkindness"; "We will not sit night after night in darkness." Bit of a metaphor there?

They set off, walking over the Great Plain and over the mound where the giant is buried, aware that this is a place of danger. A storm starts and they take shelter in a ruined villa where they meet a boatman and a woman with a rabbit in her hand. The boatman ferries souls to the land of the dead and the woman is a widow with a grudge: he took her husband years ago and will not take her too; furthermore, unless she can prove how close their relationship was, when she reaches the island of the dead she will be on her own and never meet her husband again. This acts as a warning to Beatrice: how can she answer the boatman's questions when her time comes given that their memories are so bad, with the mist of forgetfulness hanging over the land.

After the old couple have decided to travel they meet the boatman and an old woman. It is this meeting they meet Wistan and Edwin and Sir Gawain. And it is exactly at the halfway point that Axl and Beatrice learn the secret of the mist. This secret drives a new quest for the second part of the book, when they realise that there is something else that they have to do.

The mist is forgetfulness. It clouds our memories. This is good, because we cannot remember sadnesses and we become aware that there are episodes in Axl and Beatrice's earlier life that are perhaps best forgotten. One of the central questions of the book is whether forgetfulness can be a good thing.

I don't think that the mist is ever described in a positive way. Sir Gawain defends forgetfulness as a necessary part of achieving a peaceful society, in a world where reciprocity, retribution and revenge seem to be the norm. Axl can understand this argument (and it would appear that Axl has a past that he has been trying to bury, that he doesn't want remembered) but Beatrice disagrees. For her, forgetfulness threatens her chance to spend eternity with the man she loves. I suppose that Ishiguro is trying to make the distinction between a love which is contingent upon certain secrets never being revealed and a love that accepts imperfections.

But both Axl and Beatrice have buried the memory that their son is dead.

In Chapter Two, right at the beginning of their journey, Axl and Beatirce meet the boatman and an old woman. This is an important meeting because it gives Beatrice a reason for her quest: she wants to remember her life with Axl because the alternative is to face eternity alone. The old woman seems less important except as a warning that this is what might become of Beatrice if she does not succeed in their quest. I don't understand why she is so keen on killing the rabbit.

This book is a radical departure for Ishiguro, confirming that he refuses to be stereotyped by genre. He has moved boldly into the world of fantasy and given it his own twist.

There were moments when I felt that the book could have worked better. Discussing it with members of my reading group there was a clear disagreement as to whether the quest on which Axl and Beatrice had departed was to find their son or to recover their memories. This core confusion led to some weakening of the thrust of the plot. One reader felt that it meant that A & B were continually being side-tracked: if they wanted to find their son why did they keeping trying to achieve other goals. Another reader mused that this was a bit like life. I felt that there was a discontinuity when A & B come across the poisoned goat; another reader felt that the plot was full of such discontinuities as though Ishiguro had in mind a series of scenes he wanted to record but little overall purpose.

Two readers confessed they had great difficulty in finishing the book.

Nevertheless, I feel that the Ishiguro's brilliance showed in his wonderful characterisations and his beautiful scene-setting. I loved (and another reader hated) the minutely choreographed between Wistan and the solider that he kills, observed so carefully by Axl, showing Axl's understanding of warfare. I was particularly impressed by the way the two main characters were brought to vivid life and their love so delightfully rendered.

And there was confusion over why the book was called The Buried Giant. There is the giant's burial mound early on, and later there is a cairn to a giant, but giant's don't seem to figure greatly. Our reading group consensus was that memory was the giant buried in all of us. What do you think? Tell me on twitter @daja57

A marmite book perhaps.

October 2017; 362 pages